The economic dependency of the Greater Mekong region on the Mekong River is explored in a report launched today at the 2016 Greater Mekong Forum on Water, Food and Energy.
The new WWF report stresses that current unsustainable and uncoordinated development is pushing the river system to the brink, and urges governments, businesses, and communities in the region to come together to manage the river in a way that respects the ecosystem’s limits if economic growth is to continue.
The document explores the critical role of the river in the economy, highlighting important risks and opportunities for each country and key business sectors. The Mekong underpins everything from agriculture and fisheries to energy production and manufacturing, and its natural resources provide huge economic value. All economic activity, with an estimated average 5-8% economic growth rate in the region, is directly or indirectly linked to the river and therefore vulnerable to any negative changes to the river.
The rapid rise of urbanization has contributed to the demand on the river as a resource. Development projects in the Lower Mekong River basin (Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam) such as hydropower dams, in-channel sand mining and irrigation are intended to harness the Mekong’s natural resources for further economic growth. However, the report suggests that if their cumulative impacts are not carefully considered, these development activities could instead undermine the very basis of the economy and their impacts will be felt for decades to come.
According to the report, economic development is putting a strain on the very river system that sustains it.
The report proposes concrete steps and policies to improve river governance and sustainable resource use. These include economic incentives to use resources more sustainably, such as taxes, subsidies, tradable permits or compliance offsets. The report suggests that the business sector can coordinate and engage in water governance through a corporate water stewardship platform. Development agencies, donors and direct foreign investors can support policies that encourage systemic, integrated economic planning and private sector engagement.
Marc Goichot, WWF-Greater Mekong Water Lead spoke about the direct impact. “Twenty years ago, the Mekong was one of the last large healthy tropical systems. Today, water quality is degrading fast, last year’s drought was the worst on record, floods are more frequent, fish catches are declining and the entire riverbed and river bank are eroding. Meanwhile, the Mekong delta is literally sinking and shrinking. All of this is pushing more freshwater species such as river dolphins to the brink of extinction, while also causing serious limitations to economic growth.”
Stuart Orr, Leader of the WWF Water Practice, looking at the bigger picture, said that “governments, companies and communities in the Mekong region must come together to develop joint solutions to water governance challenges. These challenges are difficult but not unsolvable. Mekong decision makers can draw on good examples from around the world of using public-private partnerships and financial innovation to effectively conserve natural resources for everyone’s benefit.”